Readings — From the November 2019 issue

Sex and Sensibility

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From an interview with Vladimir Nabokov conducted by Alberto Ongaro in 1966 for L’Europeo, included in Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor, a book of Nabokov’s work, which will be published this month by Knopf.

alberto ongaro: Love has changed, according to sociologists, novels, and films: casual sex, infidelity, no sense of sexual jealousy. Sex has been emptied of feelings.

vladimir nabokov: I agree with you that literature and cinema deal with the problem of sex more frequently than they once did. In fact, you could say they deal with little else. And that in my opinion is the only perceptible change in this field. There is more openness, less shame, less shyness in discussing sexual facts. Even if the past has a rich erotic literature, contemporary literature is less prudish than in the past, with the exception of Russia, which has never been freed from prudery. On the contrary. But for other Western literatures the fact is undeniable. The times seem to have changed. In Balzac, for example, there aren’t explicit references to characters’ erotic relationships, even if they were taken for granted. Now it comes up everywhere. Authors describe the physiological side of love in detail. But this is a fact about the history of literature and cinema rather than of mores. In short, it seems to me that sexual customs in civilized countries are always the same and that only the way of showing them has changed.

ongaro: Haven’t feelings been transformed in our time?

nabokov: Not to my knowledge. You see, I don’t think we have a reference point for talking about transformation. Talk of changes, of transformations, always implies a starting point, an ideal model from which the evolutionary process starts. We don’t have this when we’re talking of love.

We have an idyllic, spiritual idea of love in the Middle Ages, but if we look at certain engravings of the time, we see the spiritual knights bathing nude with their ladies. So what, then, is the ideal model to compare our customs with? There is none. There is none, because love has always been the same. Love now is no different from in Catullus’ day.

ongaro: But the nineteenth century was so different, so puritanical. Couldn’t that be the reference point?

nabokov: I think it’s a commonplace to say that the nineteenth century was a puritanical age. To take just one example, adultery in the nineteenth century was a kind of sacred institution. The Paris feuilletons were full of adulteries in high society. And don’t forget the married couples unfaithful to each other by mutual consent. And incest was very frequent, if not usual, in the Russian countryside and in the rest of Europe. In Pushkin’s time unspeakable things went on. No, I do not believe that the nineteenth century was a particularly puritanical age. As I don’t believe the eighteenth century was more libertine, or that the era in which we live is particularly libertine. I do not believe such labels. They seem arbitrary and unfounded. In my view, forms of puritanism and freedom have coexisted simultaneously in every era.

ongaro: But never as now: newspapers, cinema, billboards cannot do without sex. This is transforming us stealthily. The experts think it a serious threat to mankind.

nabokov: The bombardment of images may be an innovation of our times. But that’s only in terms of quantity. The visual depiction of the erotic has always been there. There was no dearth of paintings evoking love in the past. The examples are endless. All the painted Venuses, Leda and the Swan, Susanna and the Elders, to say nothing of the Pompeian frescoes, some of which, in this so-called libertine and shameless age, cannot be seen because they are considered too scandalous. Nowadays painting no longer depicts love. Now it’s up to the cinema, television, and advertising. I do not know if the quantity of these images can affect sensibilities and transform them. I don’t think so. Anyway, the phenomenon is not a transformation but a transference. A transference to another means of expression.

ongaro: Do you think a love like that of Humbert Humbert and Lolita is still possible? A total abandonment to feeling?

nabokov: Humbert Humbert is a villain and his case is no model. But if by this question you want to know if I believe people still fall in love, and in the same way as before, I will answer yes. You see, I have taught for a long time in universities. I know young people well, I have seen couples who loved each other, couples who broke up painfully, others who broke up painlessly, as always, as always. The young people I’ve known were no different in love from the way I was, nor from how young people are today or will be like tomorrow. Love and sex, I repeat, are always the same.

ongaro: Isn’t it risky to say this? If man does not change now, how could he evolve? And it’s not far from saying that man is always the same, regardless of historical context.

nabokov: I do not believe that man exists, but men; and men are different from each other and the same in the essential elements that persist through time. And love is an essential element. Certainly there can be social, moral evolution, but not in love or in the feelings that can be always the same, the joys or sorrows that love can give.

ongaro: But the general trend seems to be to take the pains of love less seriously. Love today seems to rest in an emotional vacuum.

nabokov: I do not think this is a general trend, but a phenomenon that affects some milieus, milieus that perhaps have never taken love seriously. Certainly the bohemians of New York or London, artists living in Greenwich Village and SoHo, are very casual in this regard. But their behavior is no different from that of bohemians of other eras. In other milieus, on the other hand, what has always happened continues to happen: people continue to suffer for love, to rejoice in the same way, to kill, and to kill themselves. No, I don’t think we can speak of a general tendency to underplay love.

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